Challenge and Transformation: Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism

Lawrence H. Schiffman, PhD

The years of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine rule in Judea and of Sassanian rule in Babylonia were years of great challenge to the ongoing continuity of Judaism, and, at the same time, years of great accomplishment which resulted in the successful meeting of these challenges. By the time the period of Late Antiquity drew to a close, Judaism had survived the challenges of Hellenization, sectarianism, violent revolution, and even anti-Semitism. In addition, the development of Israelite religion into the rabbinic tradition took place in these very same years. The many transitions that took place in this period are what effectively made possible the long-term continuity of Judaism as an exilic religion, able to enter the medieval period with a new consensus on how to face the future and explain the past.

One God or Many? Judaism and Foreign Cultures

Already in the biblical period, a major conflict concerned the very nature of Israelite religion. Was the God of Israel to be worshipped alongside other gods, or was He to be venerated exclusively? Along with this issue went the question of the centralization of worship. In an attempt to root out syncretistic worship and to control the priesthood, the Deuteronomic tradition, as followed by Hezekiah and Josiah, stood for limitation of sacrificial worship to the Jerusalem Temple. Further, only Zadokite priests (descendants of one of Solomon’s high priests, Zadok) were to offer the sacrifices. Needless to say, those believing that the God of Israel was to be one among many saw no reason to centralize worship or to limit membership in the legitimate priesthood.

Behind these political and religious questions lay a larger cultural question which was to concern the Jews in the Second Commonwealth, namely, whether Israelite religion should be a total way of life which left no room for outside elements, or whether it was to be only a part of the life of the individual and the nation.

Nevertheless, this question was not a black and white one. The issue was never whether or not to reject outside influence. The question was rather whether to assimilate some elements not considered harmful or to allow the wholesale entry of foreign elements into the way of life of the Jews. Those seeking exclusive worship of God felt that adoption of foreign elements without restriction was nothing more than apostasy and the abandonment of Judaism. Others, against whom our sources so often polemicize, disagreed.

The Samaritans

This complex of issues was to manifest itself early in the Second Temple period. The returning Jews began to rebuild the Temple; the Samaritans offered to help and were rejected.

When we come to discuss the Samaritans, we are immediately plagued by the problem of sources. While the Bible describes the origins of Samaritanism, we must remember that the Scriptures were handed down by Jewish groups that were fundamentally anti-Samaritan. It is therefore probable that there is some bias in these materials. Second, all the Samaritans’ own traditions appear in writings which are of very late date, and many of them have been clearly influenced by Islamic sources. Finally, the material in rabbinic literature and in Josephus is also subject to the claim of bias.

From these various sources, we can reconstruct the following account. The Samaritans were a mixed people made up of strains of Northern Israelites who had not been exiled in 722 B.C.E. and the various foreign nations that the Assyrians had brought into the area in an attempt to ensure that national aspirations could not again come to the fore. This mixed group, the Samaritans, had adopted a syncretistic form of Judaism. They seem to have maintained the old Northern traditions and to have combined them with those of the nations settled among them. More important, however, was the genealogical problem.

In First Temple times it was possible for foreigners to join the Jewish people in an informal way by moving physically and socially into the land and adhering to its religion and laws. During the exile, Judaism had been transformed from a nationality dependent on connection to the land and culture to a religion which depended upon descent. For how else could Judaism ensure its continuity when deprived of its homeland? The returning Jews from Babylonia could not accept the questionable genealogy of the Samaritans. On the other hand, there was not yet a system for religious conversion as developed later on in the Second Temple period. Hence, there was no choice but to reject the Samaritans, even had they agreed to abandon their syncretistic practices.

This issue had political overtones as well. The Samaritans attempted, although with limited success, to influence the Persian authorities to stop the building of the Temple and to limit the powers of the priestly and temporal government of the Jews. This split between the Samaritans and the Jews was final, the Samaritans remaining a separate community to this day.

The Samaritan problem was, no doubt, complicated by another long-smoldering issue. There can be no question that as far back as the earliest days of the monarchy, there was division between North and South. It was this division that eventually led, after Solomon’s death, to the split of the kingdom.

The issue of the Samaritans in the Second Temple period may be viewed, to some extent, as a continuation of the North-South schism of the First Temple. Like their Northern predecessors, the Samaritans insisted on the right to sacrifice outside of Jerusalem. Evidence seems to point to their adoption of Aramaic at an earlier stage than their Judean counterparts. Under Persian rule, the Judeans had rejected the Samaritans due to their syncretistic worship and the presence among them of non-Israelite elements. Clearly, the Judeans had chosen to follow in the footsteps of those who believed that only the God of Israel was to be worshipped, and that this worship was to be done only according to the ancient traditions of Israel. The same question was to arise again in the Hellenistic period.

The issue of Hellenism, then, can be seen as a larger issue of openness to foreign cultures and influences, a conflict which was foremost in biblical times and which continued into the Second Temple period. As the constellation of world politics and culture changed, Judaism first found itself in confrontation with the Canaanite culture and then with the phenomenon of Hellenism.

Major Sects of the Greco-Roman Age and the Challenge of Hellenism

Generally speaking, there were five groups in the Jewish population of Palestine during the Hellenistic period. Many Jews in the Diaspora were very thoroughly Hellenized. There was a small group who clearly believed that Jews ought to enter into the mainstream of Hellenistic culture. They believed that Greek educational and cultural forms ought to be imposed on the biblical heritage so that Jews might enter into the cosmos as Hellenistic citizens. Judaism would then become one of the Hellenistic cults, and the God of Israel just one of the many manifestations of Zeus, the major god of the Greek pantheon. After all, throughout the rest of the Hellenistic world, the local deities were identified with the gods of the Hellenic pantheon. It was against this extreme Hellenization that the Maccabees revolted. With time, those holding these views, whether in the Land of Israel or in the Diaspora, probably assimilated so totally into the Greek way of life that they and their descendants were lost to the Jewish people.

A second group of somewhat Hellenized Jews is that of the Greek-speaking Jews. Their primary loyalties were to the Jewish tradition, but their culture was very much influenced by the atmosphere in which they lived. Alexandria, Egypt, was certainly a center for this kind of Hellenization, typified by the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) and the writings of Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 B.C.E.–40 C.E.), who attempted to synthesize the revelation of the Torah with Platonic thought. This moderately Hellenistic Judaism also found a place in Judea, as represented, for example, by Josephus and the Greek-speaking Jews of the Land of lsrael. Many of the Greek books of the Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha are products of this approach. Among this group were, no doubt, many aristocrats and members of the Sadducean priesthood.

In speaking of the Sadducees, the problem of sources is especially acute for the reasons mentioned above. Nonetheless, considerable data can be gleaned about the Sadducees, and in the main, it seems to be reliable. Josephus explicitly mentions the Sadducees (along with the Pharisees and the Essenes) as existing as early as the time of Jonathan Maccabee (ca. 150 B.C.E.).

The most repeated characteristic of the Sadducees is their aristocratic aspect. Most of them were apparently priests or those who had intermarried with the high priestly families. The Sadducees derived their name from that of Zadok, the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Solomon. It was this family of high priests who served at the head of the priesthood throughout First and Second Temple times, the only interruptions being when foreign worship was brought into the Temple and when the Hasmoneans took control. Further, according to Josephus, the Sadducees rejected the “traditions of the fathers” observed as law by the Pharisees. These traditions seem to have been a forerunner of the later Oral Law. For the reasons described above, it is difficult to evaluate the many legal differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees mentioned in the tannaitic sources. The Sadducees also differed to some extent in theological matters with the Pharisees, a subject to which we shall return.

Closely allied with the Sadducees were the Boethusians. This group seems to have adopted similar views to those of the Sadducees. Scholars ascribe the origin of the Boethusians to Simeon ben Boethus, appointed high priest by Herod in 24 B.C.E. so that he would have sufficient status to marry Herod’s daughter Mariamne (II). There certainly were some differences between the Sadducees and the Boethusians, but it is probable that the Boethusians were a subgroup of the Sadducees.

It is clear that many of these Sadducean and Boethusian priests and their families were considerably Hellenized. They, therefore, represent the focal point of a group which accepted many aspects of Hellenistic culture while remaining loyal to the Jewish tradition.

A third group may be said to have rejected almost all aspects of Hellenistic culture. This is not to say that they had not picked up Greek vocabulary in their Hebrew and Aramaic speech or that the intellectual traditions of the oikumene (the Hellenistic world) had not affected them at all. Rather, this group seems to have remained primarily Near Eastern in culture. We refer here to the Pharisees. The name of this sect is derived from the Hebrew perushim, “separate.” This designation most probably refers to their separation from Levitically impure food and from the tables of the am ha’arets, the common people, who were not scrupulous regarding the laws of Levitical purity or tithes.

For the Pharisees as well we face the problem of sources. Little can be said with certainty about the Pharisees in the pre-70 C.E. period. Three major characteristics seem to emerge from the sources before us. First, they represented primarily the lower economic classes. Second, and perhaps as a consequence of their social status, they were not really Hellenized. To be sure, certain Greek words or intellectual approaches may have been part of their lives. However, they viewed as authoritative only what they regarded as the ancient traditions of Israel. Third, they accepted the “traditions of the fathers.” The laws of purity, tithing, and Sabbath were of primary interest to the Pharisees.

The Pharisees first appear by name in the time of Jonathan Maccabee (ca. 150 B.C.E.). Many scholars have attempted to identify the Pharisees with the Hasidim who appear as allies of Judah in the Maccabean revolt. This theory, however, cannot be substantiated. Further, our knowledge of the Hasidim in this early period is very limited. It is most probable that they were not really a sect or party, but rather a loose association of pietists such as is denoted by this term in Talmudic literature.

Rabbinic sources trace the history of the Pharisees back to the Men of the Great Assembly, who are said to have provided the religious leadership for Israel in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods. Some modem scholars have associated the Soferim (“scribes”) with the Men of the Great Assembly. The Soferim would then be forerunners of the Pharisaic movement. Unfortunately, historical evidence does not allow any definite conclusions here. All that can be said is that the Pharisees cannot have emerged suddenly, full-blown in the Hasmonean period. Their theology and organization must have been in formation somewhat earlier. How much earlier and in what form, we cannot say.

A fourth group seems to have eschewed Hellenism much more thoroughly than the Pharisees. While Pharisaic Judaism seems to have been Hellenized to at least a minor degree, the Dead Sea sect used no Greek words in its writings and, despite some views to the contrary, was in no way Hellenized. This sect was apparently founded at about the time of the Maccabean uprising. From the role of Zadokite priests in the legal teachings of the sect, one would assume that such priests made up the nucleus of the sect. The sect was founded by righteous Zadokite priests who were expelled from Temple service when the Maccabees arrogated to their family the right to officiate as high priests. This group went off to the desert where they lived at the shore of the Dead Sea in Qumran and some surrounding settlements. They left us a series of scrolls, dating primarily from the second and first centuries B.C.E., which clearly outline the life and doctrines of this sect.

Among the most important characteristics of the Dead Sea or Qumran sect is their rejection of the validity of extra-biblical traditions for the derivation of law. This group derived its law solely from biblical exegesis, an activity which occupied a major part of the daily life of the sect. In this respect, they shared the Sadducean view. Further, many of their rulings and exegeses seem to represent the Sadducean/Zadokite trend in Jewish law.

It should be noted that the Dead Sea sect wrote down legislation. Later Talmudic sources forbade the writing of Oral Law and ascribed such a proscription to Second Temple times. There is no way of knowing whether the Pharisees would have written down their extra-biblical “traditions of the fathers.” We can say with certainty that no clearly identifiable Pharisaic legal manuscript from the Second Temple period has come down to us, but neither has any Sadducean manuscript.

Many scholars have identified the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Essenes described in Philo and Josephus. Indeed, this suggestion has the merit of solving the problem of why Josephus does not mention such a major sect as the Qumranites. The Essenes, however, cannot be identified with the Qumran sect except by correcting Josephus in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such a process is somewhat circular, so that the most we may say is that the sect of Qumran might be the Essenes. Josephus mentions Essenes as existing as early as 150 B.C.E., but we must remember again how much later he was writing. No information as to the founding of this group is given by Josephus, and no convincing etymology of the name has been proposed. Further, Josephus might have generalized numerous smaller groups under the heading Essenes. It is a pity, as well, that there is no mention of the Essenes in Talmudic literature—at least not by name. The most prominent characteristic of the Essenes seems to have been the community of property; some practiced celibacy.

With regard to the Hellenistic continuum, we have a problem concerning the Essenes. If they are to be identified with the Dead Sea sect, then Hellenistic influence would seem out of the question. If, however, they are a separate group, and Josephus’ description is accurate, Hellenistic influence might account for many of their divergences from the Pharisaic approach. Further, Philo describes the sect of the Therapeutae, located at Lake Mareotis in Egypt, clearly an area of strongly Hellenized Judaism, and this sect has many affinities with the Essenes.

We have omitted discussion of a number of minor sects mentioned in rabbinic literature. Information on these is too scant, and it is often not possible to tell if we are dealing with an organized group or not.

All the groups we have discussed probably altogether accounted for less than ten percent of the Jewish population of Palestine in the Second Commonwealth. Who were the rest? Most people belonged to a class called by the Bible and the later Rabbis the am ha’arets, “the people of the land.” This group was primarily rural and of the lower economic class. Their faith was probably a simplified version of the teachings of the Bible, and their observance was similar to that of the Pharisees except that tithing and purity laws were widely disregarded. Nevertheless, we can safely assume widespread Sabbath observance and abstinence from forbidden foods. Regarding prayer and the status of the synagogue at this time, evidence is scant, and no definitive conclusions can be reached.

The am ha’arets was probably affected by Hellenism only in regard to what we may call surface culture, i.e. some vocabulary terms of a technical nature, and material culture, as shown by the widespread finds of Greek pottery and wares in the Land of Israel in this period. We know that after the Great Revolt of 66–73 C. E., the bulk of this group followed the Pharisees into the rabbinic movement. It may perhaps be said that this was only the end of a long process. This group, regarding Hellenism and the Hellenists as interlopers into their ancient way of life and culture, had greatest sympathy for the Pharisees in our period. Indeed, such an impression is certainly given by Josephus, but it may be the result of post-70 C.E. developments or of his own prejudices.

Centralization of the Cult

The issue of centralization of the sacrificial cult, i.e., the prohibition of all sacrificial worship except in the Jerusalem Temple, was linked to that of the exclusive veneration of the God of lsrael. In order to ensure the proper worship of the Israelite God, the author of Deuteronomy, followed by Hezekiah and Josiah, prohibited worship elsewhere. Further, Josiah had reduced the priests from outlying areas, whose worship was often syncretistic, to a secondary status at Jerusalem. Ezekiel, in his vision of the restored Second Temple, for the same reason, expected only Zadokite priests to minister, with others relegated to a secondary status. This seems to have become the practice in Second Temple times.

Various exceptions to the centralization of sacrificial worship can be observed in the Second Temple period. Before investigating them we must note how insignificant these exceptions are. By and large, from the Josianic reformation on, Jews did not attempt to sacrifice except in Jerusalem. Hence, the Babylonian exiles made no attempt to sacrifice in Babylonia. Of the exceptions we will mention, only the Samaritans are actually to be considered a sect. Nevertheless, the other examples provide the background for understanding the Samaritan position on this issue.

Three exceptions should be mentioned. In the Persian period, a Jewish garrison was established at Yeb or Elephantine (now Aswan) on the Nile. This garrison had a somewhat syncretistic cult including not only the God of Israel but some local gods as well. Their temple in Egypt included sacrifices offered to the God of Israel, who was the head of their pantheon. This cult was probably a late survival of the syncretistic worship of the bamot (“high places”) of First Temple times.

A second Egyptian cultic place to the God of Israel is the so-called Temple of Onias at Leontopolis. Founded in the mid-second century B.C.E., this temple was probably established as the result of internecine strife among candidates for the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Its priests were Zadokites, and it was built on the model of the Jerusalem Temple. There is no reason to doubt its exclusive worship of the God of Israel, especially if the Talmudic traditions are to be accepted.

A third example is the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. According to a report of Josephus, the veracity of which has been questioned by many scholars, this temple was also founded as the result of strife within the priesthood. Manasses, a brother of the high priest Jaddua, married Nikaso, daughter of Sanballat, governor of Samaria. Because of his marriage, Manasses was expelled from Jerusalem. His father-in-law built him a temple on Mount Gerizim (modern-day Nablus on the West Bank) with the permission of Alexander the Great. It seems, at the very least, that this date can be accepted for the building of the Samaritan temple. Additional confirmation comes from the papyri from Wadi el-Daliyeh which help to furnish a chronology of Samaritan rulers.

The exact details given by Josephus regarding the cause of the founding of this temple may be fictional. However, it certainly took place after the success of the Judeans in building the Jerusalem Temple. After all, the attempt of the Samaritans to join in the building of the Jerusalem sanctuary had been rebuffed by the Judean authorities. This rejection must have resulted in the founding of an independent temple.

It is impossible to reconstruct the cult of the Samaritan temple since the texts we have are of so much later provenance. It seems, though, that only the God of Israel would have been worshipped there, and that the sacrificial system would have been very much in accord with the biblical cultic codes as found in the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch.

The Biblical Canon

An important area of divergence among the Jews of the Second Commonwealth concerns the biblical canon and text. By canon we mean those books which are considered authoritative and holy.

The Pharisees probably accepted as sanctified and authoritative the Torah, Prophets, and a corpus of writings. Only in Mishnaic times, however, was the final decision made on certain of the writings. The Sadducees were said by the Church Fathers to have accepted only the Pentateuch, yet there is no evidence for this claim. It seems that the Sadducees would have shared at least the canon of the Pharisees. It is also possible that they accepted even more books as authoritative. The canon of the Hellenistic Jews of Alexandria, as evidenced by the Greek Bible (and followed in the Catholic tradition), includes the books classified as Apocrypha. These additional books were written during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, some in Hebrew and most in Greek. Some of the apocryphal books are representative of the point of view of the Hellenistic Jews of Alexandria. It is therefore possible that the Hellenized Sadducees may have also been attracted to these books and included them in their canon. Some of the apocryphal books, on the other hand, were written in the last days of the Second Temple, and there seems little chance that the Sadducees would have considered these works canonical.

The Samaritans regarded as canonical only the Pentateuch. Some scholars have argued that this limited canon shows that the Samaritans broke away from normative Judaism before the Prophets had been canonized. This claim, however, has been seriously challenged.

At Qumran every biblical book has been found except Esther. There are also various apocryphal or pseudepigraphical books. The problem is that we cannot be sure whether the Dead Sea sect had a concept of canon. Some argue that at Qumran the canon was open, with new books being added at times. In our view there was a canon at Qumran, including all the books in our canon, but perhaps also including one or two additional books.


The Calendar

Still another aspect of the divergence among sects at this time is the calendar. In the history of religions, calendar reform or variation has often played a part in religious schisms. To mention some familiar cases, there is the Christian shift of emphasis from Saturday to Sunday, the elimination of the intercalation of the month in the Moslem calendar, and the variations between the Eastern and Western Churches in Christianity. Such a variation or change is found in the Bible, and it will not surprise us to see a calendar dispute play a part in the Second Commonwealth as well.

Jeroboam, ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (928–907 B.C.E.), had already attempted to use a calendric change as part of his efforts to separate the people of the Northern Kingdom from their Judean co-religionists. To this end, he postponed the celebration of Sukkot from the seventh to the eighth month. Even if this adjustment may have been more in accord with the agricultural realities of the North, with its somewhat colder climate than the South, the fact remains that his purpose was to complete the shift of allegiance from the sanctuary at Jerusalem to those of Beth El and Dan to shore up his political structure.

In Second Temple times, the major issue now revolved about whether to use a series of twelve lunar months periodically adjusted by intercalation of a thirteenth to constitute a year (lunar-solar) or to use a fixed calendar of thirty-day and thirty-one-day months, twelve of which would constitute the solar year (solar). While Jewish tradition assumes that the former was the ancient Israelite calendar, and that the latter was an innovation, rightly opposed, some scholars have held the less likely view that it was the lunar month which was the innovation. In any case, the calendar of the Pharisees must have been the lunar-solar, while the Dead Sea sect and the pseudepigraphic books of Jubilees and Enoch, both found in the Qumran library, followed solar calendars. (We cannot be sure about the Sadducees.) It is possible that this 364-day solar calendar had as its purpose ensuring that the festivals would not fall on the Sabbath as this entailed numerous problems regarding Temple and home observance.

A related calendar dispute pertained to the date of the festival of Shavuot. The Bible commanded that forty-nine days be counted from the “day after the Sabbath” (Lev. 23:15). The Pharisees, according to later sources, took “Sabbath” here, based on context, to mean the first day of Passover (a day of rest, or “Sabbath”); hence, the fiftieth day after Passover was the date of Shavuot. The other groups took this passage as referring to the Saturday after either the first or last day of Passover. That these variant calendars were actually put into practice in the different groups is shown by the Habakkuk Commentary from Qumran, which tells of how the Jerusalem high priest confronted the leader of the sect on a day which the sectarians observed as the Day of Atonement.



The character of the various groups was also influenced by the degree of urbanization each group accepted, in an era in which the migration to large cities was a regular part of economic reality. In Second Temple times, not everyone was content with increasing urbanization and the changes it introduced into the agricultural way of life. Much later the Talmud was to remark that the signs of urbanization were robbery, sexual immorality, and deceitful oaths. The rural environment was regarded as fostering scholarship and the piety which went with it. This attitude must have been widespread in the Hellenistic and Roman period, as the mores of these foreign societies, with their disdain for sobriety and moderation, became increasingly familiar to the Jews of the Land of Israel. Unfortunately, the Sadducean priests, with time, seem to have surrendered themselves totally to the lure of the city and its attractions. The Pharisees, despite the widespread support they had among city dwellers, must have stood fast against much of this. It was the Dead Sea sect that made clear its opposition in its writings, attacking the Jerusalem establishment for fornication, materialism, and impurity. This opposition was no doubt manifested in the way of life of the group that set up its headquarters at Qumran. To be sure, the sect allowed the use of wine, although we may assume that it shared the biblical view that wine had to be taken in moderation. Nonetheless, the sect had physically relocated in an environment which made contact with the evils of urbanism impossible.

Particularly important is the Dead Sea sect’s view of property. While not rejecting the concept of private property so important to the society envisaged by the Hebrew Bible, the sect required that the use of all property belonging to members be common. In other words, the use of all property was shared while ownership remained in the hands of the individual. Certainly, an approach such as this would eliminate the need to accumulate large amounts of personal wealth, often at the expense of those less advantaged. Most important, it constituted a sharp denial of the materialistic attitude so prevalent in the increasingly Hellenized cities.

We have noted that it cannot be determined with certainty whether the Essenes and the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls were one and the same. The Essenes, as described by Philo and Josephus, went even further than the Dead Sea texts. They denied private ownership and held all property in common. Indeed, such an approach would later be seen in the emerging Church. The Essenes clearly spurned urban materialism, and many are described as having shunned towns because of the immorality of their inhabitants. We know from Josephus and the New Testament that in the period under discussion, there were also hermit-like holy men who had left society and separated themselves from its evils, but we must emphasize that this phenomenon is very different from that of organized groups.

We have pictured the Dead Sea sect as to a great extent anti-urban in its outlook. Even so, despite its sectarian organization and particular economic system, the settlement at Qumran and its offshoot at Ein Fashka in many ways may be regarded as a mini-city, or what might be called in Israel today a development town.


God, Man, and History

Another area in which the various sects disagreed was that of theology and the future of man. The Bible speaks of a Hades-like existence in Sheol after death. This kind of afterlife concept makes no distinction between body and soul, as the location of Sheol is below ground, and that is where Jews have always interred their dead. Indeed, the Bible regards the individual as a unitary being, making no distinction between man’s physical and spiritual aspects.

When the Jews found themselves in the Hellenistic environment, the Greek concepts of body and soul began to have an influence on Judaism. If we can believe Josephus, the Sadducees, the most Hellenized group of Jews, rejected this concept, and, hence, retained the biblical concept of afterlife. While it is indeed hard to believe that the Hellenized Sadducees would have rejected this Hellenistic concept, it is possible. After all, the Sadducees were a very conservative group in religious matters. The Pharisees, gradually accepting the Greek division of body and soul, modified their concept of life after death. They came to believe that the body ceased to function at death, while the intangible soul continued in existence. During this afterlife, people would be rewarded or punished. Eventually, the righteous would be resurrected to eternal life in the end of days. The views of the Essenes, as described by Josephus, are almost the same as those of the Pharisees. The Dead Sea sect had no problem with afterlife as they believed that they were living on the verge of the future age. They would still be alive for the dawn of the Messianic era. Nonetheless, they seem to have viewed the human being in the old biblical sense, making no distinction between body and soul.

Interesting in this connection is the question of fate and the free will of man. The Sadducees are said by Josephus to have believed in absolute freedom of the individual, with providence playing no part in the affairs of humans. The Essenes, according to him, believe that all is “in the hands of heaven.” The Pharisees are pictured as occupying a middle ground, believing that man’s free will interacts with the force of divine providence. Some scholars have questioned this schematization, believing it to be influenced by Josephus’ knowledge of Greek philosophy. Nonetheless, it is important to observe that the Dead Sea Scrolls deny man free will, and accept predestination. These texts go so far as to blame people for their transgressions, and yet assert that it is predetermined whether one is to be in the camp of the “sons of light” or that of the “sons of darkness.” Apparently, along with the sect’s constant calls for repentance goes the idea that only those whom providence has so designated are capable of repentance.

In light of later developments, Messianism is of central concern. The extent to which Messianic belief is enshrined in the Hebrew Scriptures is the subject of great controversy. On the one hand, already by the time of Isaiah, there is the concept that there will eventually arise a future Davidic king who will have excellent qualities and whose reign will usher in a period of great tranquility and peace. Further, the prophets foretell a great day of the Lord on which all the evildoers will receive their due. This day of the Lord will be accompanied by earth-shattering, cataclysmic events. The followers of the way of God will reign supreme at its conclusion. Finally, by the Second Temple period, as shown by the Book of Daniel, there was an apocalyptic notion that the deliverance of Israel would come only after a succession of divinely appointed kingdoms had reigned. After this, the Messianic era would dawn.

These ideas represent a complex of notions, and we must assume that in the First Temple period there were various differing views and conflicts regarding them. By the Second Commonwealth, fortunately, we can be more specific. First, we have various sectarian apocalyptic works such as are found in the Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. It would seem that to many of these writers what was important was the idea of the coming of the Messianic age and not necessarily the personal Messiah. The apocalyptic groups emphasized the war and the punishment of evildoers that would inaugurate the coming end of days, while the Pharisees, we may presume, emphasized the utopian kingdom to be established by the Davidic Messiah.

Another position was taken by the Dead Sea sect and some pseudepigraphical texts. They believed that the coming age would indeed begin with a great war and punishment, yet they saw the leadership of the people in the hands of two Messianic figures. A priestly Messiah would take precedence and reestablish the Jerusalem sacrificial cult. Along with him, a Davidic Messiah would rule over the reestablished temporal kingdom. The precedence given to the priestly, or Aaronide, Messiah was, no doubt, the result of the priestly origins and dominance of the Dead Sea group which we have already discussed.

Many scholars have taken the view that the Sadducees did not believe at all in Messianism. Their conclusion is based on the Sadducean denial of fate, divine providence, immortality of the soul, and resurrection. On the other hand, the Sadducees may have adhered more closely to First Temple sources and expected a more natural turn of events which would lead to the restoration of ancient Jewish glory.

Of course, the issue of Messianism really comes to the fore in the rise of Christianity. Early Christianity seems to have combined the apocalyptic view of the sects with a heavy emphasis on the Davidic Messiah, apparently the hallmark of the Pharisaic approach. From this combination emerged a concept that the Messianic era was in fact at hand as Jesus was identified as the Davidic Messiah. When his mission failed to bring about the expected results foretold in the Hebrew prophets, nascent Christianity revised those prophecies through the medium of exegesis and so was able to preserve the concept of the Messiahship of Jesus despite the disappointment. Christianity went even further and saw the Messiah as a divine or semi-divine being. Soon Christianity abrogated Jewish law and so took the steps which would separate it decidedly from Judaism. When this breach became fully apparent, the Christians realized the deep gulf separating them from Judaism and began to shift their mission toward the gentiles. The Christian view that Jewish law had been abrogated served to make gentile Christianity a realistic possibility.


Interrelation of the Sects

Palestine was a small country in which the bulk of the populace lived a simple rural life. Nevertheless, Judaism is a communally practiced religion, necessitating cooperation and consensus in the manner of discharging religious duties. For this reason alone, sectarian divisions might become sources of tension and aggravation within a community. Add to this a central sacrificial sanctuary, for control of which various groups might vie, and here are the necessary ingredients for the extension of sectarianism from the philosophical and intellectual realm into real conflict.

On the other hand, the common national heritage and a common foreign enemy often galvanized the people into overcoming and rising above their internal divisions. Further, most of the people belonged to the class called by the Talmud the am ha’arets, the common people. This class must have been for the most part unaware of the particular issues that separated the various sects.

Relations between the sects in the Greco-Roman period ranged from cordial disagreement to armed conflict. Let us survey a few examples. The Maccabean revolt can certainly be seen as beginning with a civil war between pro- and anti-Hellenistic factions within Judea. This civil war eventually resulted in the arrogation of high priestly and royal powers by the Maccabees and their Hasmonean descendants. It was probably as a reaction to this usurpation that righteous Zadokite priests went to the desert to live at Qumran.

The Pharisees eventually raised their objection to the Hasmonean usurpation of the priesthood and kingship, and this resulted in the slaughter of many Pharisees by the Hasmonean king. At the same time, the Hasmonean rulers fought the Samaritans and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim.

Many differences existed between the Pharisees and Sadducees in regard to Temple service. We know of later scuffles and even riots in the Temple regarding these practices. There is no reason to suspect that such conflicts did not erupt in earlier times as well.

On the other hand, the Mishnah portrays cordial dialogues between Pharisees and Sadducees regarding issue of Jewish law. Similar matters are irenically addressed in the MMT document from Qumran. There is again no reason to doubt that such discussions took place, especially in times when tensions were eased for one reason or another. Talmudic reports, however, paint the Boethusians as sabotaging the rabbinic proclamation of the new moon in an attempt to confuse the Pharisaic calendar, which the Boethusians regarded as illegitimate. We must remember, however, that the rabbinic dislike for the priestly house of Boethus may have colored their opinions of the Boethusians.

Relations between Jews and the early Christians seem to have been friendly at first. Many peaceful dialogues relating to religious matters are described in the New Testament accounts. As the divergences of Christianity from Judaism became increasingly clear, Jews and Christians began to turn against each other. This is already evident in the priestly opposition to Jesus. By the year 70 C.E., the Christian community of Jerusalem would see their national destiny as separate from that of the Jews. The messianic overtones of the revolt against Rome (of which we shall speak below) made it impossible for the Christians to participate fully in the revolt.

What was the impact of these conflicts on daily life? First, we know that some of the groups, namely the Pharisees and the Dead Sea sect, had special purity laws which required that they eat only food prepared according to regulation. Sadducees would have observed similar laws in regard to the eating of Temple offerings. These groups would have abstained from the food of the am haarets, who were not careful in regard to purity or tithes. The social consequences of these differences are readily apparent. What needs to be stressed is that, with the exception of the priesthood, one could join another group simply by adopting the rules of the sect. These were not closed groups.

Regarding marriage, beginning in the early years of the Second Commonwealth, the genealogical conception of the Jewish people did not allow their marriage with non-Jews. Hence, marriage with the Samaritans was prohibited, and it remains even so today.

In the case of Christianity, the matter is more complex. Jews and Jewish Christians would probably have married one another in the early years of Christianity. Once Gentile Christianity became the norm, the Jews defined Christians as non-Jews and prohibited marriage with them. Beyond this, we know of no other prohibitions on marriage between the sects. On the other hand, the tendency of people to marry within their own socio-economic group must have operated then as it does today. Indeed, aristocratic and Sadducean priestly families tended to marry one another throughout our period.

Some Jews, those holding the views of extreme Hellenizers desiring complete assimilation into the mainstream of the Greco-Roman world, would have ignored the prohibitions on intermarriage. A small number of individuals would have also found themselves intermarrying for purely personal reasons.

There was, as we mentioned, some disagreement about the dates of holidays. We cannot be sure which dates were followed, except that the Sadducees must have controlled Temple worship for much of our period. Rabbinic sources and Josephus, however, portray the Pharisees as in control, at least from the time of Salome Alexandra (76–67 B.C.E.). This account may be idealized, as it is hard to see the Sadducees accepting Pharisaic domination of the Temple. It is not impossible, though, that the immense popularity of the Pharisees gave them considerable leverage over the less popular Sadducean officials of the Temple.

In spite of these accounts of struggles, we must not lose perspective on the extent of these conflicts. Our sources tend to highlight contacts and disagreements. The fact is that there were considerable affinities among all the groups since they shared many religious principles and practices and a common nationality.


Republished with permission of the author